Journalism reveres, then history revises. Anyone with a minimal reading of history knows how rapidly opinion alters. Teddy Roosevelt is astride Central Park West one day and in the (figurative) basement the next. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat—or, given the pace and the vengefulness of verdicts in the social-media age, the hero at breakfast is the villain at lunchtime. (See, passim, the Cuomos.)
But history does not always revise—J.F.K.’s conduct in the Cuban missile crisis appears, if anything, even better in retrospect than it did at the time, and at the time it seemed impressive. Far from simply staring down the Russians, as we thought then, he also showed them a way out, by secretly promising to remove American missiles from Turkey. And Winston Churchill’s speeches in 1940, whatever grimmer verdicts may be rendered about his imperialist conduct before the war and his sadly incoherent presence after, are still the clarion calls of liberty that they were for so many at the time. Those who criticize Churchill now are free to do so because he protected freedom against some of the most lethal enemies it has known.
Among the countless ins and outs of the war in Ukraine, the heroism of the speeches and public appearances of President Volodymyr Zelensky stands out as something unlikely to be revised by history. Tragic fates may await the man and his people, but no one will readily forget the sight of Zelensky speaking up, within the limits of clandestine Internet broadcasting, for his people and his cause. Some of his impromptu lines were memorable, as in his reported rejection of an American offer to get him safely out of Kyiv—“I need ammunition, not a ride”—but even more impressive were the short rhetorical gestures: the repeated “here!” of one of his first broadcasts, insisting to his people that the President and his entourage were still, well, there. He practices a very twenty-first-century form of political rhetoric, made and consumed on smartphones, that rejects grand oratorical gestures for simple, short repeated takes. (And Zelensky is very twenty-first century, too, in his readiness to recycle and sample older riffs, as when he repeated some of Churchill’s famous war rhetoric in an address to the British Parliament.)
There may be revisionist histories; and the darkness yet to come may black out the brightness visible now. No one is above or outside criticism; Zelensky is an imperfect democrat, as was Churchill, as are we all. (His relationship with the media oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky is a subject for probing.) But, for students of the styles of democratic inspiration, he remains transfixing and unique. Unique because, before Zelensky became President, he was not merely an actor—à la Reagan and some others—he was a comic, a clown. He came to office, it seems, on a platform of little else except his clowning, particularly his role in a comedy series about the elevation of an ordinary bumbler to the Ukrainian Presidency. If he had a platform, we were assured when he ran for President, in 2019, it lay in mockery—particularly of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who conveyed a hard-edged appearance of authority. Once, when called a clown, Zelensky did not argue, but posted a video on Instagram of his own face with a big red nose upon it. The refusal to act like a grownup infuriated Zelensky’s opponents as much as Groucho Marx infuriated his political opponents in Fredonia, in “Duck Soup,” with his unseriousness. “He dreams of a soft, submissive, gentle, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain President,” Poroshenko said. “Will we gift him this?”
Indeed, watching Zelensky now, one does not think, Oh, wow, he once was a comedian! One thinks, This is what a comedian looks like in power. In American terms, it would not be hard to imagine the late George Carlin or Richard Pryor—or, for that matter, Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks—in the same kind of role, familiarly self-satirizing, suddenly sober and serious. Thinking of the place of a comedian in power, a reader’s mind turns inevitably toward a great Russian critic of the past century, Mikhail Bakhtin, who made his special study the intricate relation of “carnival” (i.e., clowning) with power. At a time when too many are disgracing themselves by turning against Russian art and literature, it is pleasing to understand a Ukrainian hero through a Russian lens.
Bakhtin, who lived a long life, from 1895 to 1975, was a complex and many-sided thinker, a linguist and a philosopher of language as well as a Renaissance historian and literary critic. He missed the Gulag, or, just as likely, the bullet in the head that cut down many of his collaborators, by luck and by inches. To truly understand Bakhtin at depth requires comprehending, for instance, what he meant by “dialogized heteroglossia,” and his work is made still more opaque by the frequent necessity to mask his largely non-Marxist views in Marxist language.
But it is not difficult to give a general picture of Bakhtin’s view in his great book, “Rabelais and His World” (written in the nineteen-forties but not published until the nineteen-sixties), that a “carnival” is not only a European peasant festival but an event that gave birth to a whole new way of looking at the world, a world turned upside down. The ugly and ridiculous things that bodies do—copulate, defecate, get drunk, fart—are the special realm of healthy vulgar comedy, of “carnival,” and this comedy reminds us of the limits of power to explain and dominate existence. The Church and the courts can give orders, but they can’t make an order more enduring and permanent than the gloriously sordid order of the body. There were, Bakhtin wrote, two lives available in Rabelais’s time: “One that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter.” It was the genius of Rabelais to break apart this world order by raising it to literature, not only to make us laugh but to make us aware that the highest philosophy could be produced by the lowest comedy. Comedy is the peasant’s revenge on the king; laughter is man’s revenge on God.
Bakhtin was, of course, contrasting the carnival spirit against the cult of personality and the bureaucratic, grinding evil of Stalinism. What he admired in Rabelais and labelled “grotesque realism” is the opposite of social realism, the enforced manner of civic virtue of the Stalin period. But he did not see “grotesque realism” as merely anarchic. Out of the detritus and absurdity comes renewal. The Marx Brothers, again, are an almost too perfect example of that kind of comedy—exploding, yes, but not merely burning down, the pompous order of politics or “high” culture, instead renewing it with a fluid alternative vaudeville order of puns, wordplay, improvised music, and mime. (It is no accident that so many on the Russian autocratic front today, like Patriarch Kirill, are so bizarrely obsessed with gay-pride parades, despite their harmless and far-from-soldierly nature, exactly because they embody the carnival spirit in contemporary dress, or undress. The parade, the public festival of difference, is what’s threatening.)